What's unusual about Everglades City is that it has been less interested in acquiring money and influence than in maintaining the pirate's mentality, says James Kaserman, co-author of "Pirates of Southwest Florida: Fact and Legend." "They like their independence. They like not having to sit in little boxes and follow the maddening crowd," says Jeanette Schwam, a 33-year resident of Everglades City. "That's what their forefathers were.... They don't want it to be a millionaire's cove. They want it to be an individual place."
The area's pirate mind-set remained alive and well until the early 1980s. Then, in 1983, federal law enforcement – with help from the Coast Guard and the Navy SEALs – blockaded Everglades City for three days, arresting nearly every adult male on smuggling charges.
After the bust, things began to change. Through zoning ordinances, town referendums, and a tough-minded activist mayor who few have dared to cross, the town has kept out all fast food restaurants and hotel chains, including Holiday Inn. Instead, fish houses and back country lodges fill the local scene. One chain restaurant, Subway, managed to get in through its licensing deal with BP gas stations.
"We're conspiratorially minded and we think they're after running us all out," says Bob Wells, a longtime realtor in Everglades City. "We're changing, but we change on our own."
Despite its distasteful quirks, Everglades City is able to thrive for several reasons: The boom in Florida ecotourism has provided enough local employment and tax dollars to diminish the allure for outside developers.